|YOUR EYES ARE NOT DECEIVING YOU: It took Barbara Weinberger and Kurt Kleinmann (above, as Harry Hunsacker) six years to perfect their Living Black and White technique. Below, Kleinmann carefully applies his makeup.|
It’s the night of November 7, 2005. Kurt Kleinmann is about to receive the Dallas Theatre League’s Leon Rabin Standing Ovation Award for his contribution to theater in Dallas. His friend Bruce Coleman, winner of many Rabin awards himself, gives him a long, glowing introduction, reminding everyone who this man is.
Coleman tells the audience at the Naomi Bruton Theater in the Dallas Convention Center that Kleinmann is “something of a curmudgeon,” a fact which belies his great generosity to actors and others in the theater community. Nobody would be there getting awards, Coleman reminds them, if Kurt Kleinmann had not been instrumental in founding the Dallas Theatre League in the early ’90s. He tells the younger members of the League that for 17 years—from the time that Kleinmann and his wife Barbara Weinberger started Pegasus Theatre in Deep Ellum in 1985 until the building was sold to a new owner in 2002 and they were forced to close—Pegasus Theatre produced new and original comedies, including area premieres of plays by Charles Ludlum and Charles Busch, not to mention many of his own works. Then he announces that Pegasus Theatre is back, slated to reopen in January at the Eisemann Center in Richardson, featuring Kleinmann’s new Harry Hunsacker play, Mind Over Murder—in Living Black and White.
As Kleinmann walks across the stage, Coleman waits for him, shakes his hand, and then stands behind him with the air of a nervous parent at a recital. A heavyset man, Kleinmann has a serious, slightly disapproving face. It’s easier to picture him behind a banker’s desk, irritated at the presumption of one’s request for a loan, than to imagine him tirelessly fostering comedy in Dallas for the past 20 years. For a few minutes, Kleinmann—whom his wife Barbara describes as “actually kind of shy”—makes his way awkwardly through the obligatory comments. Then he gets to what he really wants to say, telling the audience what he learned by doing theater in Dallas, starting with the fact that some actors don’t wear underwear—and Coleman relaxes for the first time.
Dissolve into black-and-white closeup of a much younger Kleinmann, thermometer angling from his mouth. The scene opens up. He’s lying on a sofa watching television. On the TV screen, Sherlock Holmes lords over poor, dumb Watson.
“I was living in New York when I wrote the first play, A Trifle Dead, and it was born out of an actor’s frustration,” Kleinmann says over lunch at Al Biernat’s, a week before the Rabins. He is explaining the origin of Pegasus Theatre’s Living Black and White mysteries. “I was going to auditions—and frustrated. In New York, they can be very, very specific in what they are looking for. If they need a 4-foot Lithuanian, they can find a 4-foot Lithuanian. So I thought, ’Well, I’ll just write myself something, and I know I’ll be right for it!’ I had severe bronchitis at the time and I ended up flat on my back watching TV. It was ’78. I would have been—23?”
“I bet you were cute when you were 23!” says Barbara Weinberger.
He raises his eyebrows slightly.
“So I was watching these old Sherlock Holmes movies, the ones with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and it just irritated the heck out of me, the way they portrayed Watson. They have portrayed the world’s smartest detective hanging around the world’s biggest idiot. Well, what if I reversed that? What if I had the world’s dumbest detective hanging around the most brilliant sidekick in the world? That’s where the original idea came from.”
The world’s dumbest detective became Harry Hunsacker, not to be confused with Harry Hunsicker, the Park Cities novelist who published his first novel—a detective mystery, of course—last spring. (They joke about suing him.) In Kleinmann’s plays, Hunsacker really wants to be an actor, one of many running jokes in the series of plays.
“The more I thought about it, I thought, ’Well, this is a parody of these old films. How do you complete the parody? I guess we have to do it in black and white.’”
No one had done it before, so Kleinmann had to invent it. Even people who have seen many of these plays might have no idea what a complex accomplishment they are.
“There were probably six years of trial and error and experimentation to get it to the point where people see it today,” he says. “There have been minor tweaks since then, but the major strides came in the first six years: finding the lights, finding the makeup.”
“Realizing how strict we had to be about any other colors in fabric,” Weinberger adds. “There are a lot of fabrics that to the naked eye look black or white but actually have a great deal of yellow or purple or brown in them.”
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“You make sure,” Kleinmann says, “there is nothing of color in the vision because it will distort your perception of the grey. And that’s one reason why these won’t work in a three-quarter thrust or in the round. Your eyes would be seeing the audience on the other side.” The imaginary plane defined by the proscenium stage, he explains, acts like a film screen. “After five minutes, your brain plays a little trick on you as you watch one of these plays. Your vision of what’s onstage flattens out, and it becomes very movie-like. And that’s one reason we bring Barbara out at the end in living color. We realize that people get so used to what we’re doing that they forget it’s a theatrical trick!”
“I wear red because the audiences just love the shock of it,” Weinberger says.
Kleinmann is Harry Hunsacker in all of Pegasus Theatre’s productions. “I don’t really like to admit that, I’ll tell you,” he says.
“One time we had to go in for some medical procedure,” Weinberger says, “and Kurt’s on the gurney going down a hall in Medical City, and he rolls into one of those big elevators. Another guy on a gurney looks over at Kurt and says, ’Hey! You’re Harry Hunsacker!’”
“And there’s a follow-up to that story,” Kleinmann says. “I was at Central Market eating a sandwich, and this guy comes up to me and he says, ’You probably don’t remember this, but about 10 years ago you were at Medical City.’ And I said, ’You were the guy who said, “Harry Hunsacker!”’ Normally, when I’m not doing this, I have a beard. So, having the beard and without the makeup, it’s hard for some people to recognize me. Which is fine.”
Kleinmann reminds me of what John Keats says about poets, if you substitute the word “actor”: “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually informing and filling some other Body.”
Back at the Rabins, he endures the recognition, the best-loved faux curmudgeon in town. And what he says is crucial. Theaters in Dallas, he insists, are not in competition with each other. Any time people have a good experience of theater, they are much more likely to go to another play, and his championing of that message goes a long way toward explaining why 37 different companies belong to the Dallas Theatre League today.
On the other hand, considering how difficult a life it is, here’s his advice: “If you can be happy doing something besides theater, do it.”
He might not be the world’s dumbest detective, but it’s obvious that he can’t think of anything else.
Mind Over Murder premieres at a special New Year’s Eve performance in Pegasus Theatre’s new venue at the Eisemann. The show opens officially on January 5 and runs through January 22, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm.
Photos by Elizabeth Lavin
Don’t Try This at Home
The Dallas Opera risks a sour note with the crazy ambitious Ariadne.
Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos is a killer. First off, it has 17 principal roles. Seventeen. Second, Ariadne isn’t just an opera. It’s an opera about an opera (a classical, tragic one at that) that is to be performed, in a sudden plot twist, while a comedy troupe winds in and out of it. Think King Lear meets Seinfeld. And, just to make things a little more thorny, the central action of the opera takes place on an island. Rumor has it that the Dallas Opera will use thousands of gallons of water and that three of the singers will perform soaking wet.
“It’s like juggling while walking the tightrope without a safety net,” says Graeme Jenkins, music director of the Dallas Opera.
The timing for the piece couldn’t be more perfect. The 40-minute prologue is all about the value of the arts both in terms of creating and supporting. With the recent groundbreaking of the new Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, this has “Dallas” written all over it.
“This opera is all about gearing up for our new home,” Jenkins says. “One day, people from Dallas will be fighting tourists for tickets.”
Ariadne should be a thrill to watch. With Jenkins conducting, it will certainly be a treat to listen to. “The voluptuous lines of Strauss will seduce the audience with this amazing harmonic gift,” he says. “Its patterns are delicate and exposed and will sweep audiences away with this moving art of the most visceral form. You’ll be entranced.” —JENNY BLOCK
Ariadne runs January 6, 8, 11, and 14 at the Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First Ave. 214-443-1000. www.dallasopera.org.